Recently I had to help some artists become storytellers. They were masterful at putting brush to canvas but when it came to telling their unique compelling stories, they were finger painting. So here’s some good advice for artists and the painfully un-artistic alike, so that you confidently create your story that compels.
Add an a generous helping of conflict
Conflict is absolutely the first thing you should know about creating stories. Most “Bio’s” or “About Me” pages are all sweet and cuddly, filled with details that don’t get anyone’s attention. So what if you were born in a regular town, to regular folks, in a regular manner. I’m already bored. But this is what most people do. Without conflict you lose the reader.
Go easy, only a dash, of details
If you want a really compelling story, the details are not important. Well, details are kind of important but only if they serve the main conflict. For example, my wife is the oldest of five children, her parents are average folks, she grew up in Port Orchard, WA, now she paints with acrylics and enjoys painting flowers. All these things are true, but they also make for mostly uninteresting reading.
Make them ask “Why is that?”
Now what if I told you that at one point she almost stopped painting forever? I suspect that you ask yourself “Why?” And that’s what you should strive for when you are creating any story about yourself, to make the reader want to read more. This is how I would write her general biography:
“I almost stopped painting, forever. When I was a teenager, I had a horrible experience where someone completely shattered my confidence in my artwork. For many years I believed the lies that person told me , so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to even touch a paint brush.
“Then, in 2006, this nagging voice in my head wouldn’t let go of the idea that I had something to give, that I was hiding my talent from the world. Eventually the voice in my head won and I picked up the canvass and paint. Out of that first flurry of pent up emotion and desire came one of my most loved works, Wildflowers, but I couldn’t stop there.
“Instead of giving in to the fear and negativity of the past, I decided to fight back by creating my idyllic world on canvas, making the world as beautiful as I saw it. Every so often, the old fears creep back, but all it takes is a little bit of paint on canvas to remind me that the world can be a much more beautiful place.”
Let them get to know the real you
While a little dramatic, this passage is more memorable than just talking about your vital statistics. People will be able to connect with your story more deeply if you include your pain and your struggles, all those things that you hide away and don’t want everyone to see. You are an artist, people already see them in your work and this is simply another way that you can connect with people that want to know you. Let yourself be free to be you.
Here are some quick questions that you can ask yourself when you are trying to craft your story:
- Where is the conflict? What have you struggled through to get where you are? Have you had obstacles or setbacks? When did these things happen? (dates and places provide mental foundations for the reader to imagine)
- Do you have a defining moment in your past? Was there a point where you transitioned from a “non-artist” to artist?
- What have you overcome to get where you are? Do you have mental or physical handicaps?
- What is your theme? What one word describes you or your work? (admittedly this is one of the most difficult tasks you can do if you are honest with yourself, but the rewards are a clarity of purpose and thought)
- Do you have a guiding passage, poem, or phrase that gives you constant inspiration? Why does it work for you? Is there a story behind that?
- What about your life or work is interesting, out of the ordinary, curious, or fascinating? People are just as interested in the unknown as in your conflicts. Where you born in another country? Did your parents raise you in a basement? Were you a country-bumpkin and now you are in the city, how does that make you feel? How does that affect your work?
Start with the conflict and then you can get into the other details like theme and curiosity. If the reader knows a little more of your real story, the deep and dark things that make up you, then they will care more about the other things. And they will care more about your art.